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Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Web posted on April 19, 2017

A Curmudgeon's View

By Les Enekes

It's been bit over a year since my column on how airline flying has gotten worse over the years. Recently one airline has been getting a lot of negative publicity for some of their actions. I don't know anyone at that airline, and my only flight with them was uneventful. They are trying to do some serious damage control, but I don`t think this is going to go away any time soon. When all is said and done, there will be a lot of very happy lawyers out there. Perhaps there might even be some improvement in the way passengers are treated.

As more information comes out, the more convoluted the whole thing becomes. The flight in question was operated by one of their feeder carriers. This means that it is an independent carrier that has a contract for a certain amount of seats per year and gets to paint their aircraft in the markings of the contracting carrier. This particular carrier flies for all three major U.S. airlines. This has been a common practise for years down south. Your ticket may say one of the three major airlines but if you are flying on a smaller aircraft (usually fewer than 90 seats) you will be flying on a contract carrier. There will be times when you will be dealing with their employees who are not paid as much as the contracting airlines employees are. (At this point we don't know if the employee worked for the airline in question or the contract carrier.) The higher the flight number the more likely that you will be flying on a feeder airline. For the most part the whole process is seamless and the average passenger does not know the difference. Passengers should know the name of the airline operating that commuter flight, and that name should be prominently displayed on the aircraft.

There was a serious amount of incompetence shown by someone. Unless it was a last minute decision the employees who were flying should have been "booked" through the reservation system. If those employees were in the system, the gate agent should have asked for volunteers long before the passengers were boarded. We still don't know all the details, but something just does not seem right. There are more questions than answers.

Then there are the so called airport police. One thing that caught my eye on the video was that one of these alleged police officers appeared to be wearing jeans. When was the last time you saw a real police officer wearing jeans? They are not members of the Chicago Police Department, they do not have the same training and are not allowed to carry guns. They are allowed to arrest people. Sounds like glorified mall cops. Hmmm, I wonder what would happen if there were a serious terrorist related incident.

Methinks that there is still a lot of merde that has yet to be distributed.

The negative publicity started a few weeks ago when there was a bit of controversy in the media about some girls wearing leggings not being allowed on an airline flight. They were on what is known as a buddy pass. This means they were flying as a guest of an airline employee. Every airline has very strict rules about flying on a buddy pass. These include everything from conduct at the airport and on the plane to the appropriate clothing that must be worn. Airline employees are required to make sure that their friends or relatives are aware of these restrictions. In some cases failure to do so can result in the loss of flight privileges for the employee. The people in question should have known better.

When you are traveling on a buddy pass the clothes you wear must be somewhere in the casual Friday to business casual range. Jeans, shorts, sandals, baseball caps, and t-shirts are not allowed. I am not sure what the requirements are for children. The upside of the passes is that if you chose your flight carefully there is a chance of ending up in business class. Everything depends on how full the flight is. On the other hand if it is a fairly full flight, you get the dreaded middle seat. You have no choice where you end up sitting. Chances are excellent that you will not be sitting with the rest of your party. On the other hand your luggage travels for free. You are flying on standby and will be the last to board, your luggage will also be the last loaded. This means by the time you get to luggage claim, your bag(s) are waiting for you. The downside is that most of your flying will be done in the middle of the week, during off peak times of the year.

I have had the privilege of flying on a buddy pass on several occasions and have been up front as many times as I have been in the middle seat. If you play by the rules, you will be treated fairly and get the best available seat. You could be a guest of the CEO for all they know.

Back in the day everyone got dressed up in their finest to go flying. Just take a look at some of the movies from the 40s to the late 60s. Slowly things evolved and people started to wear everyday clothes. These days if you are a paying passenger, almost anything goes, as long as it is not offensive. I have seen people sitting up front looking like they couldn't afford to go by bus. I prefer to wear business casual when flying. Even if you are not on a pass, I think it does make a difference. Airline employees have God like powers in some ways. Don't ever piss them off.

Most airlines still overbook flights at times, while others claim they don't. Do some homework before booking your flight. Every airline has a different policy for bumping passengers, but for the most part it comes down to the gate agent. All the airlines use very sophisticated reservation systems and I am reasonably sure that they have a formula for how many no shows there might be on any given flight. I am guessing that it is somewhat of an inexact science such as weather forecasting. Anything can mess up this formula, from a broken airplane to some serious weather issues. It does not take that much to mess up an airline's day. I suspect overbooking is done on the busiest days and at peak times. Business people tend to fly at the beginning and end of the week. They are also the ones most likely to change their plans on very short notice. Corporate travel has changed as well, with many companies you have to be above a certain pay grade to fly up front. Vacation travelers tend to fly on weekends, and tend to have little or no flexibility. With the high prices airlines charge these days for cancellations and changing your flights, it's hard to see why corporate bean counters would allow their employees to make any last minute changes without good reason. Most tickets are non refundable these days. There are probably a few people out there who can afford to fly on a whim, and if there plans change, won't miss the cost of the ticket. Celebrities on the "B" and "C" list come to mind. The "A" list types fly on private jets anyway. Therefore the airlines really don't need to overbook because they already have the money. My friends in the industry will neither confirm nor deny my theories, but we have had some interesting debates about this and other issues.

As a paying passenger I always tried to book the earliest flight in the day and was ready to volunteer to get bumped. It only happened once and I was up front on the next flight, and had a voucher to cover a huge chunk of my next flight. I also get to sit next to Dr. Roberta Bondar. It was a Monday flight as I recall. If you are a frequent flyer (I am not) and are flexible in your plans you can make the system work for you. It's possible cover a lot of the cost of your flights and maybe even come out ahead, and I have a feeling it can only get better. All the airlines are now scrambling to look good when trying to get volunteers. One airline has announced that it is prepared to offer up to ten thousand dollars for volunteers.

On the other hand if you are hoping to get a free upgrade on a rental car because they are out of your size, (always book sub compact) you should plan to arrive late in the day. I had much better luck with getting car upgrades.

That obnoxious character in the torn jeans and t-shirt might be the first to be bumped if the flight is full and there are no volunteers. Of course if you are unpleasant to begin with you will be the first to be bumped no matter how you are dressed. On the other hand if you are well dressed, and volunteer to get bumped, chances are good that you will be upgraded on the next flight if there are seats available. If you volunteer too early, you might not get the best deal. If you wait too long someone else might jump in and get the deal. Like the song says: "You got to know when to hold `em. Know when to fold `em."

While very airline has their own policy about bumping, there are also some government regulations. I wonder what would happen if they changed the regulations so that airlines would have to keep increasing the compensation offered for being bumped until they had enough volunteers. A fair upper limit would be two business class tickets with all taxes and fees included (or cash equivalent) to anywhere the airline flies, plus meal vouchers and accommodation depending on the wait for the next flight. Make the incentive big enough and they will get all the volunteers they need. The original ticket price should also be refunded when a passenger volunteers to get bumped. Our government is planning to introduce a new passenger's bill of rights some time this spring. Let's hope that they come up with something that will have some teeth in it. It is time to make the skies a lot friendlier.

Always be careful what you pack in your luggage or you might find yourself in deep trouble. You could even make the headlines like that guy at YYZ a while ago. What you might think to be innocent may look very suspicious when being scanned. Shortly after 9-11 I was going through U.S. pre clearance at YYZ and got pulled over for a random luggage check. I had a few rolls of American coins (I was planning to go to one of those coin machines and get them exchanged for bills) in my suitcase and was advised by a very friendly Customs agent that it was lucky that I got a random spot check because rolled coins would look very suspicious when going through the X-ray machine and could have caused some serious problems. She told me that I should always take them in my carry on luggage. I thanked her, put the coins in my camera case and went on to the security check where the rather unfriendly guy that I should have put them in my checked luggage. At this point I decided to play dumb and said I was very sorry, and was allowed through. Some time later it was "suggested" that taking rolled coins or even a large amount of loose change is really not a good idea. I was also told that I did the right thing by not saying anything else. There seemed to be a lot of confusion shortly after 9-11. The best thing to do is to think twice before you pack.

As I mentioned in my column of about a year ago, flying these days is not what it used to be, and has been in a steady decline for years. These days the airlines want to make the average customer pay for almost everything but the seat. Unless you are flying on a long haul flight, even first class is a thing of the past. Business class is where the airlines make most of their money. De-regulation of airlines spawned mergers and bankruptcies on both sides of the border. We are left with very little competition, and questionable service at best.

As you know by now I have a serious aversion to using brand names or company names unless absolutely necessary. I hate giving free publicity (good or bad) to any company or product. I always try to give as many hints as possible about the companies in question.

My original column about flying planned for today was overtaken by events and has been moved to a future date. Bumping even happens when writing a column.

Les Enekes can be reached directly by owl. For those not owl equipped, he can be reached at

The views of columnists in The Fountain Pen do not necessarily represent the views of the principals of the publication.

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